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Originally published Friday, May 10, 2013 at 4:14 PM

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Scouting for the moral high ground

There are Christian moderates and Christian liberals, writes Frank Bruni, and they are no less concerned with acting in ways that reflect moral ideals than the “religious right” and the Boy Scouts of America.

Syndicated columnist

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Well said - excellent editorial MORE
It's heartening and an important reminder that not all people of faith are dogmatic... MORE

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As the Boy Scouts of America reassesses its ban on gay Scouts and leaders, we’re hearing a lot about the organization’s need to remain sensitive to people whose religions condemn homosexual behavior. Their morals must be properly respected, their God aptly revered.

But what about the morals and the God of people whose religions exhort them to be inclusive and to treat gays and lesbians with the same dignity as anyone else? There are many Americans in this camp, and their opposition to the Scouts’ ban is as faith-based as the stance of those who want it maintained.

Take Scott Ward, 48, a public-relations executive and married father of three in Takoma Park, Md. He’s a Scout leader, with a 10-year-old son who’s a Scout. He’s also an elder in his Presbyterian church.

And for him, the ban must go not despite what Christianity says about homosexuality (or what selective literalists have decided it says), but because of what it says about humanity.

“From my faith perspective, singling people out for exclusion from the life of the church or the life of the community cannot possibly be part of God’s plan,” Ward told me on the phone recently.

He added, “If you look at the people Jesus tended to be most suspicious of, they were people who sat in positions of authority to say that they had the unique ability to judge others.”

We refer incessantly in this country to the “religious right,” a phrase routinely presented as if it’s some sort of syllogism: To be devoutly religious is to gravitate to a certain side of the political spectrum, one set of values dictating the other. “Christian conservatives” is an almost equally ubiquitous bit of alliteration.

But there’s a religious center. A religious left. There are Christian moderates and Christian liberals: less alliterative and less dogmatic, but perhaps no less concerned with acting in ways that reflect moral ideals. We should better acknowledge that and them.

And we should stop equating conventional piety with certain issues only and sexual morality above other kinds.

Our tendency to do that was illustrated by the hullabaloo last year over the Nuns on the Bus. The Vatican officials who wanted them to be more assertively anti-abortion and anti-birth control were portrayed as the dutiful guardians of tradition, while the nuns, focused on matters of economic justice, were the rebels.

Why? It’s as fundamentally Catholic and Christian to care about the underprivileged as to safeguard the unborn (or to combat homosexuality). Indeed, many Catholics look to a politician’s social-welfare policies as much as they do to other positions, and vote in a manner that would be accorded a label other than conservative.

Many people of faith are pacifists, and that’s a decisive factor in how they cast their ballots, though this concern is infrequently characterized in religious terms.

“I find it perplexing the way the ‘moral values’ phrase is used,” said the Rev. Mark Greiner, the pastor at the Presbyterian church that Ward attends.

“Concern for the environment, concern for workers’ rights: Those are moral values,” he told me. “But the phrase ends up being limited to matters of human sexuality, as if Jesus was primarily concerned with what people did with their reproductive parts. It’s crazy-making.” Greiner wants the ban on gay Scouts and leaders lifted.

Religion is inevitably part of the Scouts’ debate: More than 70 percent of local Scout troops are chartered by religious groups.

Later this month, the organization’s National Council will vote on a recommendation that the ban on gay Scouts be lifted but the prohibition against gay leaders be preserved. The Mormons have indicated that they can live with this. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting has been vague.

The Baptists have cried foul, as have evangelicals like Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which sponsored a webcast over the weekend called “Stand with Scouts Sunday.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared on it to denounce any change to the ban, and for good measure called homosexuality “the flavor of the month.” Like pralines ’n’ cream, I guess.

But that’s not the whole story. The Episcopal Church wants all aspects of the ban lifted, as does the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, whose former chairman, a Baltimore lawyer named Jay Lenrow, told me that while no troop should be forced to choose a gay leader, no troop should be prevented from doing so, either.

He noted that our country was founded on a principle of religious freedom; that the Scouts’ bylaws require equal treatment of every religion’s teachings; and that certain denominations — the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example — ordain gay and lesbian ministers. By the Scouts’ current rules, those very ministers, fit for the pulpit, aren’t deemed fit to lead a troop.

Isn’t that as much of an insult to their religions as the ban’s end would be to Perkins, Perry and their kind?

© 2013, New York Times News Service

Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times


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